Ballymacarrett Railway Halt

****CAUTION: This article contains details of a gruesome death. Those who get queasey please be warned.****

TRAGEDY ON THE TRACKS: The Catherine Hanvey Story

By Jonny Porter


On a crisp moonlight night or dark early morning, it is said that the spirit of a troubled young woman can be seen wandering the Streets of Ballymacarrett, East Belfast. An air of mystery surrounds the tragic and fatal accident causing the death of Catherine Hanvey. 122 years ago, the ‘between jobs’ domestic servant met her sad and shocking end. We look at the events surrounding her death, which point away from suicide and more to tragic accident. Although the inquest, could not say for certain what happened that night.

Catherine is described as having dark hair and being a woman of medium make, rather stout and about 30 years old. Catherine was unmarried and at the time of her death she was living with her sister in Montrose Street, East Belfast. This was the Victorian era where Queen’s Island employed thousands of locals. Indeed Catherine’s own brother-in-law, Alfred Moss, was employed as a caulker at Harland and Wolff, which had been going for 38 years at this point. Belfast itself had been granted city status a mere 8 years earlier, in 1888. Indeed this moment in time, was 16 years before the Titanic was launched on that fateful day in 1912.

The background to the story of Catherine’s horrific death is made up from news paper reports and witness accounts from the inquest.

In September, 1894, Catherine was committed to the Belfast City And District Lunatic Asylum. However, she was released after six weeks when her sister, Mrs Moss (no Christian name available), felt she was ‘capable of taking charge of herself.’ She was described as eccentric, but of sound mind, by her sister.

The following is an excerpt from the Belfast Newsletter (Monday 24th February 1896)

“She always fancied there was a noise in her head and that she was being annoyed by the neighbours. She carried an old razor in her pocket for the purpose of cutting corns. Witness never heard her threaten to commit suicide, and, though a little eccentric, she believed her to be in sound mind. When leaving on Thursday she said “I will make a home for myself.” from that witness understood she was going to her cousins in Holywood. Her life was insured.”

And from the Belfast Evening Telegraph (Saturday 22nd February 1896)

“Yesterday evening about half past six o’clock the deceased informed her sister that she would get a place for herself that night. Asked as to what she inferred from the remark Mrs Moss stated that she thought that her sister intended to go to get some place to sleep that night. She did not think that she meant to go and look for another situation as servant. Mrs Moss, continuing, said the deceased did not tell her where she would go to. She had no friends in Holywood, and did not know any person there. She then walked out of the house, and Mrs Moss, getting somewhat alarmed at her conduct, went after her a little, but soon lost sight of her, and didn’t not hear anything concerning her until this morning. Deceased had been looking strange during the week, and yesterday she appeared greatly depressed. The sister had no idea what was taking the deceased to Holywood. ”

The same information from The Northern Whig (Saturday 22nd February 1896)

“About half past six o’clock on Thursday evening the deceased remarked to her sister that she would get a place to herself that night. Mrs Moss did not interpret the remark in the sense that she was going to look for a situation that night, but merely that she would find a place to sleep. She did not say where she intended going, but on leaving the house, which she did immediately, her sister, feeling somewhat concerned by her manner and conduct, followed her for some distance, but soon lost sight of her altogether. She had no friends in Holywood, nor, as far as Mrs Moss is aware, she did not know any person residing there.”

There is a slight contradiction in the statements quoted in the papers as to whether Catherine knew anyone in Holywood. The general consensus seemed to be that she had no reason to go there.

The story continues in this Belfast Evening Telegraph excerpt (Saturday 22nd February 1896):

It is supposed that the deceased (if she did get into a train) took the 7.30 train leaving Belfast for Holywood, as the ticket immediately preceding the one issued to her was for that train. Sergeant Houston is at present engaged in obtaining as much information as possible regarding the occurrence for the inquest. The police at Holywood telegraphed to the Mountpottinger police, in reply to their wire, stating that the deceased was not known in that town. A wire was forwarded from Belfast to Bangor police, asking if on the arrival of the 7.30 train from the city last evening any parcels were found in any of the carriages by the officials, and to this a reply was sent to the effect that none had been discovered. Mrs Moss, a sister of the deceased, was interviewed this evening.

Details from the inquest, including an over dramatic turn from one of the witnesses have been included from an article in the Belfast Newsletter (Monday 24th February 1896):

David Mullholland, carriage examiner, employed in the Belfast and County Down Railway,stated that shortly before seven o’clock on Thursday evening he saw a woman sitting in a carriage of the train leaving Belfast for Holywood, and witnesses’attention was directed towards her, as she was talking rather loudly. As the train was starting, witness said, in reply to some remark made by the woman. “You will not be long until you are back again.” Witness could not remember what observation was made by the woman. To the best of his opinion the remains in the morgue were those of the person to whom he had spoken.She appeared to be in a talkative mood.

To Mr Lewis (Mr A. J. Lewis of the railway company)- He merely spoke to the girl in a joking mood. Mr Masterson (Mr Wm. Masterson, J.P, Judge) thought the remark rather extraordinary under the circumstances. Mr Lewis pointed out that it was a customary thing when two persons were parting for one or other of them to say, “I’ll see you again.” On this occasion, the remark was “It will not be long until you are back again.” They seemed to him to be analogous remarks.

Head-Constable Mahoney – “Coming events cast their shadows before.”

Mr Lewis – “Do you mean to suggest that this person in the box was in any way responsible for what occurred?”

Head-Constable Mahoney – Oh certainly not.

Mr Lewis – Then what is the meaning of this playing with words?

Head-Constable Mahoney – I will explain to their Worships what I mean. There have been instances over and over again of persons shortly before death having that event foretold them – “Coming events cast their shadows before.”

Mr Lewis – But in this case you have the person who made the remark in the box before you, so your philosophy does not apply here at all.

Robert McKee, station-master at Holywood, was called to prove that the ticket (produced) was missed at the Holywood terminus on the arrival of the train at that station.

The Northern Whig confirms:

In reply to a wire asking for any available information concerning the matter,the police at Holywood telegraphed yesterday to the Mountpottinger Barracks stating that the deceased was not known in that town. A wire was sent to the Bangor police asking if on the arrival of the 7.30 train from Belfast on Thursday evening any parcels were found by officials in any of the carriages, and to this a negative reply was received. In one of the pockets of deceased there was found a purse, which contained a ‘single’ third-class railway ticket from Belfast to Holywood, dated 20th February, 1896, and numbered 2,753. There were also in the purse 4s 3d in money and some household articles.

And now to the matter of the state of the body. It is with respect and in memory of Catherine that these details have been included. It is necessary to know the grim truth of how she died in order for her story to be complete.

According to The Northern Whig:

…a ghastly discovery was made on the Holywood branch of the County Down Railway, adjacent to Ballymacarrett signal station, by a man named James Carnaghan…Carnaghan, who, it appears, was returning at the time from work on the night shift at Queen’s Island at about a quarter past six o’clock, came on the body, or more correctly speaking, the mutilated remains of a woman lying scattered over the rails, at the junction where the Bangor and Holywood branch separates from the main line. The spectacle presented was sickening in the extreme.

The body, which was lying between the lines, was completely severed in two, and portions of it were scattered for a distance of fifty yards, the place all round being saturated with blood. Sergeant Gough, of Mountpottinger Police Barracks, who was summoned to the scene of the occurrence, gives the following description of the appearance of the remains of the deceased:-

“The body was cut in two at the waist as clean as if by a knife; the bowels were strewn over the sleepers and rails. The right arm was off, and part of the right side of the body was ground to a pulp. The left arm, head and neck were together, but the face had received fearful injuries, the jaw being knocked forward and the teeth destroyed, with the result that the features were unrecognisable. Blood and pieces of flesh were all over the place.”

The remains were collected, placed in a box, and subsequently conveyed to the morgue by Sergeant Houston. Later in the day the body was identified by Mrs Moss…as that of her sister, Catherine Hanvey.

The Belfast Newsletter reported:

James Carnaghan…deposed to finding the remains while going to his work at about six o’clock on Friday morning. He opprised the constabulary of what he had seen.

Dr Robert Thompson, who had made a superficial examination, described the state in which he found the body. The head was fractured, and almost severed from the trunk, which was divided into two parts.One of the arms was cut off. Nearly all the bones in the body were broken.Death was instantaneous, the cause being the injuries received. Sergeant Thomas Gough said that about quarter past six o’clock on Friday morning Carnaghan reported that a woman had been killed on the railway above the Ballymacarrett junction. Accompanied by Sergeant Murphy, he proceeded to the place and found the mutilated remains, and had them removed to the morgue.

According to the Belfast Evening Telegraph:

At a quarter to seven, it was reported to Sergeant Gough, of Mountpottinger police barracks, that a woman’s body terribly mutilated was lying on the rails near the signal station. He proceeded to the place indicated, and found the body and had it lodged in the morgue at eight o’clock…The remains were discovered at a quarter past six o’clock this morning by a man named James Carnaghan…who was returning from work on the night shift. Sergeant Gough, on going to the place, found a sickening spectacle. The body was cut in two at the waist,as clean as if by a knife, the bowels were strewn over the sleepers and rails, the right arm was off and part of the right side of the body was ground to a pulp. The left arm, head and neck were together, but the face had received fearful injuries, the jaw being knocked forward, and the teeth destroyed- with the result that the features are unrecognisable. Blood and pieces of flesh were all over the place, and considerable difficulty was experienced in collecting the remains, which, as already stated, were conveyed to the morgue by Sergeant Houston. The body was found on the line to Belfast.

Some investigation was carried out and witnesses spoken to at an inquest. The following excerpts are the conclusions drawn which were reported in the papers:

The Belfast Evening Telegraph wrote:

The police examined the wheels of all the available engines, this morning, but found no traces of blood. One engine from Bangor was expected to show some traces of the accident, but none were found. The railway authorities offered every facility to the constabulary in investigating the melancholy occurrence, which has caused deep regret amongst all the officials. Various theories to account for the tragedy are being discussed in public circles, but the inquest will produce all the information obtainable on the matter. At the present time no-one knows how the deceased got onto the line, or when she was killed. The body was identified in the morgue this forenoon by her sister, Mrs Moss residing in Mountpottinger, as that of Catherine Hanvey…She[Catherine]…got into employment as a servant in a house on the Lisburn Road, and stopped there until a week ago, when she went home and resided until yesterday with her sister. Her father and mother are both dead, and she has living, a sister (Mrs Moss) and two brothers.

The Northern Whig concluded:

Up to the present no explanation of any kind is forthcoming as to the circumstances of the sad occurrences. The opinion entertained by the police is that the deceased traveled in the train on Thursday night from Belfast for Holywood, as the ticket was purchased, and through some cause or other fell out of the carriage at the junction. The body must have been passed over and knocked about by a number of trains, with the result that it was mangled and mutilated in the frightful manner described. An inquest will be held in the recorder’s court today at half past one o’clock, and the coroner’s inquiry will doubtless throw sufficient light on the melancholy occurrences to explain how the unfortunate girl came by her terrible tragic death.

The conclusion of the inquest was reported in the Belfast Newsletter:

Mr Lewis said he had the officials of the railway company present, and they were prepared to give any information that the court or jury might wish to have, but he considered that it would be an abuse of their patience to call them as witnesses.

Mr Masterson concurred, and the jury, without leaving their seats, returned the following verdict: – “That the said Catherine Hanvey, on the 21st day of February, 1896, on the Holywood and Bangor branch of the Belfast and County Down Railway, opposite Central Street, Ballymacarrett, in the city of Belfast, came to her death from injuries received, caused by an engine and train passing over her.”


*DISCLAIMER: The ‘orbs’ in these photos are merely droplets of water as it was one of the wettest day in history when taking the photos)



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